What Does an Oncology Nurse Do?

Jul 29, 2020
Cindy Barnard RN, BSN, OCN, CBCN

When asked why I chose oncology nursing as a specialty, I respond that it’s “the most rewarding work I have ever done.” Many people think of oncology nursing as a depressing specialty, but I have found it to be the exact opposite! 

What are the typical responsibilities of an Oncology Nurse? 

  • Possess strong understanding of cancer pathophysiology
  • Execute exemplary patient education skills and psychosocial awareness
  • Develop a deep knowledge base of common cancer treatments
  • Demonstrate sharp listening and assessment skills
  • Identify common oncological emergencies and interventions
  • Hold a high aptitude for emotional intelligence/compassion
  • Strong patient advocacy skills
  • If administering chemo, possess expert IV skills

What should nurses entering this specialty expect to encounter on a regular basis?

Nurses entering the oncology specialty can expect to develop close-knit relationships with patients and family members. They will typically meet patients during the most frightening time of their life; a time when they learn that they have a life-threatening illness and no idea what it means. 

The oncology nurse will play an integral role in impacting a patients’ cancer journey by exuding confidence, encouragement, and hope even when things grow grim. 

An oncology nurse will witness the joy of patients “ringing the bell” after they successfully complete treatment and are officially cancer free! 

They will also experience highly heartbreaking circumstances that they will never forget. 

This role involves emotional and spiritual work, and you can expect a range of emotions on a regular basis. There is also a high aptitude of listening skills needed to truly comprehend what is going on. Patients don’t always know how to voice their suffering or concerns. By learning what is important to the patient, oncology nurses can develop a strong sense of trust.

woman getting mammogram with nurse in background oncology nursing

My experience as an Oncology Nurse

My first experience as an oncology nurse was in an outpatient infusion center administering chemo. Later on, I served for seven years as a breast cancer navigator. Five years ago, I said goodbye to one of my most memorable young patients. 

Anna (name changed) passed away at the age of 32. I had been her navigator for 2 years. Single and living with her boyfriend, she had very poor family support. I witnessed the emotional and physical strains of breast cancer first hand. 

When she became metastatic during the last 6 months of her life, her boyfriend proposed, and she and I began planning their destination wedding! Even though she was in terrible pain and continuing her chemotherapy, planning the wedding helped keep her hopeful. 

Caring for Anna changed me forever as both a person and a nursing professional, and it strongly affected the deeply emotional heart of mine. It’s not her suffering that I’ll remember most, but the way she melted my heart of compassion throughout her journey. 

On the day that we were scheduled to travel to Florida for the destination wedding, Anna lost her battle with breast cancer. We held a celebration of life instead of a wedding that day. In the end, it was the joy of the journey—not the destination—that really counted.

What are some of the benefits of working as an Oncology Nurse? 

Oncology nurses develop long-term relationships with their patients and experience highly rewarding days of celebrating cancer-free seasons. An oncology nurse knows when their work makes a difference because it leads to a positive experience

This can be challenging as patients go through major life-threatening illnesses. The ability to have hope, ease fears, and offer spiritual support sheds light on the reminder that every day is a gift on a personal level. Most oncology patients live in an aura of gratefulness, because they know first-hand just how precious life is. 

two people hugging cancer surviver oncology nurse

The not-so-great parts of working as an Oncology Nurse? 

Seeing people struggle, experience setbacks, and battle grief is difficult. Sometimes, this grief can be cumulative (as in the case of compassion fatigue). It is challenging to leave work at work and not think about the patients when you’re back home. 

Additionally, there can be unexpected developments during a patient’s cancer journey. Patients sometimes succumb to the disease before achieving their life goals, which is always hard to see.

Share your favorite piece of advice for nursing new grads or students looking to become an Oncology Nurse

Never underestimate the deep spiritual gifts you were blessed with that drew you to nursing in the first place. There are many lonely people in the world, and you may be their only hope in their cancer journey! 

When it comes to affecting spiritual change, oncology nurses have the highest impact. Ever heard the saying that people won’t remember what you say but will remember how you made them feel? That is an oncology nurse. 

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